“On football as on so many other issues @UKLabour 2019 manifesto is shown to be far seeing and ahead of the curve.” For Labour’s former shadow home secretary Diane Abbott, this Sunday’s news that six English clubs had signed up for a long-vaunted European Super League — a closed shop of fifteen big name, wealthy clubs without promotion or relegation — gave the lie to the idea that sports aren’t political.
Back in 2019, the British press was keen to accuse Labour of overreach by even talking about sports — the Daily Express, for example, ran shrieking headlines about Corbyn’s “communist” plan to “nationalise football clubs … starting with Liverpool.” Yet that manifesto has since been shown to be entirely accurate in its diagnosis of the country’s problems with corruption and corporate control — in football and beyond.
It called for football supporters’ trusts to be able to buy shares when their clubs changed owners, and to be able to appoint or dismiss board members. Labour proposals would have mandated that the English Premier League pay 5 percent of its annual television income to grassroots football, and pledged to add women’s football to the list of sporting events that should be broadcast on channels that were free to watch, ban zero hours contracts, and guarantee that all professional clubs pay their staff a living wage.
More widely, the Arsenal-supporting Corbyn promised to “review all aspects of football governance, including fan participation” — insisting that “Sport must be run in the interests of those who participate in it, follow it and love it, not just for the privileged and wealthy few.”
We all know what happened next: Labour was smashed at the ballot box. British politics and media began a festival of McCarthyite reaction, certain that Corbyn’s ideas had been defeated forever — and then the coronavirus hit.
The pandemic isn’t the cause of this latest move, but it has helped accelerate it. After being suspended for three months, the English Premier League concluded the 2019–20 season without fans, dropping their long-held ban on every fixtures being televised, nearly all on pay-per-view channels — an alienating experience for those (like this writer) who regularly go to matches and love the social side as much if not more than what happens on the pitch.
This was no surprise: TV income had long ago eclipsed ticket revenue in importance for the biggest clubs, who allowed broadcasters to treat their captive market of paying fans as if their needs were entirely unimportant. Games are frequently moved from Saturday afternoons to Friday or Monday evenings, giving away supporters long journeys that suddenly require a day off work, in some cases making it impossible to stay until final whistle and still get the last train home.
Fans are again being screwed — and it’s no coincidence that these clubs have announced their intention to join the Super League while grounds remain empty: if they were full, their stands would be filled with banners and songs attacking their billionaire owners’ greed. It took fans of Liverpool — one of the six English clubs to declare their involvement — less than a day to put banners saying “Shame on you” and “RIP LFC 1892–2021” on the gates at its home ground Anfield.
The Gentrification of Football
Without doubt, the proposed European Super League, and six English clubs’ involvement in it, has been brewing for a long time. The first truly pan-continental competition, the European Cup, began in 1955 after former France international footballer turned L’Équipe editor Gabriel Hanot took exception to English journalists declaring Wolverhampton Wanderers the best side in Europe after they beat Hungarian champions Honvéd in an exhibition match, and suggested how to settle the matter.
Every season, the winners of each European national league would play each other in a straight knockout tournament with home and away legs held on weeknights (made possible by the recent innovation of floodlights), with a final played at a neutral venue. This was soon joined by the European Cup Winners’ Cup for clubs who succeeded in domestic knockout tournaments (or else the losing finalists, if the winner had already qualified for the European Cup via the league), and the UEFA Cup (Union of European Football Associations) for teams who finished near the top of the table, with admission based on a complex points-based weighting system.
Much more simple in its design, the European Cup was the perfect competition. It was often unpredictable, with the champions of Greece, Scotland, Sweden, and Yugoslavia reaching the final alongside the traditional elites of England, Germany, Italy, and Spain and the emerging powers of the Netherlands and Portugal. This may have been exciting for fans, but the owners of Europe’s most famous, wealthy clubs hated the unseeded draw, and pressured UEFA to restructure the tournament after Romanian champions Steaua Bucharest won it in 1986, and then that autumn, Italian giants Juventus went out to Real Madrid in the second round, before the unfancied FC Porto became winners for the first time.
But this began to change in 1992 when the European Cup became the Champions League, with a group stage for eight teams who got through the previous rounds, with the winners playing in the final. Over time, it grew into the current format of a thirty-two-team group stage followed by a knockout tournament for the sixteen teams who came first and second. In the 1990s and 2000s, it was often enthralling, ensuring the world’s best clubs regularly faced each other in the highest-stake fixtures. Such prestigious games on such a frequent basis meant more TV revenue, as all were broadcast internationally.
Yet this created a vicious cycle, as the disproportionate amount of money involved devalued the UEFA Cup, and the Cup Winners’ Cup disappeared entirely. Clubs that regularly qualified for the Champions League became even richer, turning their domestic leagues into a predictable procession — Bayern Munich have won the last eight German titles, Juventus the last nine in Italy — as these behemoths stripped every country outside western Europe of all their talents, and were gradually bought out by global billionaires.
In the UK, free-to-air ITV lost the Champions League broadcast rights to pay-per-view BT Sport in 2013, and now even the final is not on terrestrial television. More than twenty years earlier, ITV had hoped to make more money from showing the new Premier League, made up of twenty-two clubs from the old First Division who wanted more control over broadcast rights.
The Tottenham Hotspur chairman – Amstrad computer mogul, future Apprentice host and Corbyn antagonist Alan Sugar — suggested to Rupert Murdoch that Premier League football could be the making of Murdoch’s Sky TV network. Murdoch blew ITV out of the water, and so, since 1992, live top division football has only been available on pay-per-view. His own attempt to buy Manchester United in the early 2000s ultimately fell foul of competition laws, but the oligarch takeover that began with Roman Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea in 2003 would not have happened without Murdoch’s annexation of its top flight a decade earlier.
English football was less fashionable in the 1980s — its clubs were banned from European competitions due to problems with hooliganism, especially the Heysel Stadium disaster. Its dilapidated stadia led to two tragedies — the Bradford City stadium fire of 1985 and the Hillsborough crush in 1989, which each killed many dozens of fans.
The latter tragedy was caused in large part by institutional contempt for football fans — the pain exacerbated by the Murdoch press, which infamously sided with the police in blaming the Liverpool supporters for the deaths, causing so much resentment that the Sun is still boycotted in the city. Murdoch’s coup was an act of disaster capitalism, tying in with the gentrification of football that came with the post-Hillsborough ruling that major stadia had to be all-seater (with attendant price rises) and the marketing of the sport to middle and upper classes.
Forks In the Road
Perhaps not coincidentally, Anfield was the only ground where you would hear fans singing Jeremy Corbyn’s name in the run-up to the 2019 election. The manifesto was, in part, a plan to redress some of the inequalities and injustices of the last forty years — not least in football, which Thatcher treated with the same hostility as other centers of working-class organization. It recognized that both 1979 and 2019 were forks in the road, where Britain had the choice between an intensification of neoliberalism, or at least some redistribution of wealth and power.
In no small part thanks to the media, it chose the former.
This week, the Super League announcement has drawn a near-universal hostile reaction — even Sir Keir Starmer QC condemned it, as did Boris Johnson, the FA, and UEFA. This situation shows how necessary reforming the game continues to be, as Corbyn himself was allowed to comment in a now-rare appearance on BBC Politics.
After the pandemic proved the former Labour leader right about the need for large-scale funding of the National Health Service, kept out of private hands, and especially for high-quality broadband across the country, he has been proven right about the need to put football fans above owners and broadcasters. We have seen during the last year that football can carry on without them, temporarily at least. But it will not survive without retaining some structural integrity — something that will only happen if the soulless financiers are reined in.